Posts tagged ‘Blarney’

March 9, 2011

Lent, a time for new beginnings and growth.

Blarney Crocuses

Photo: Crocuses at Blarney Castle (February 2011)

Sermon for Ash Wednesday.  Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Mentioning ‘Lent’ to people will provoke differing reactions. For some, it is the chance to give something up, such as chocolate, smoking, alcohol, (or churchgoing)!  For others it is the chance to start doing something good and positive, going for a brisk walk every morning, reading Deuteronomy and Leviticus before breakfast or giving some time or money to a charity.  For others still, even mentioning ‘Lent’ will result in arms being folded and statements of defiance such as ‘Well, I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

I have to say that over the years I’ve tried various things with limited success, so I was pleased about the appointed reading for today because it is one that I have for years found in equal measure comforting, encouraging and challenging.  This reading gives us help with some of the great themes of Lent that have been practised by Christians down through the centuries, these are: Giving to the needy, Prayer, Fasting, and the way we view possessions.

The Lord Jesus begins by teaching about giving to the needy.  Even just mentioning this may make us squirm!  It used to be that the needy were people who you lived amongst, orphans and widows and beggars on the streets were near where you lived and may have been known to you personally.  Now to a large degree, the needy are much more remote from us, they live in far away places, we are distanced from them in language, culture and creed.  As such, it is easy to forget about them and as it were to pass by on the other side of the road.  If we have a conscience however, the needy will never be so far away from us that we are unable to help.  Not only does the Lord Jesus want us to give to the needy, He wants us to do it in secret.  He says:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (v.1-4)

The Lord does not want us to be hypocrites, where we only do things for outward appearance – ‘Look at me aren’t I great for giving all this money away!’  Haven’t we all felt that temptation, when we have done something good or given something away, we want people to know about it? Of course, if people can find out about our giving and it looks like we were trying to keep it a secret all the better – ‘O how holy I am!’  I love the phrase ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, our motive for giving must be pure; we must genuinely not even secretly want some kind of reward in return.  We give because of God’s love, God’s love for us and for the joy of being used by God to bless others in return.

The next great theme of Lent is that of Prayer, the Lord says:

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (v.5-6)

Again, we are not to be hypocrites, putting on prayers for show to be seen and heard by others.  I learnt my lesson about this at the Christian Union meeting I used to attend in my student days.  For some reason I got it into my head that God was impressed with long complicated prayers and so when we used to have prayer times I would set off on these really extended ridiculous prayers with what I thought were long and impressive words and rich metaphors – it was all very ridiculous and I am ashamed as I remember it.  Nobody said anything to me about it but one day, in mid prayer it suddenly dawned on me what I was doing – I was trying to impress God, and I was trying to impress my fellow students and I was a big eejit!  I felt so stupid and it was many months before I could pray out loud again – normally and honestly and without hypocrisy.  Of course this is even more important in our personal and private prayer; like our giving of money, our personal prayer times should be in secret, behind a closed door out of sight and hearing of anyone else as much as possible.

Have you ever tried to fast?  If you want some way to make yourself as grumpy and as irritable as possible I highly recommend it!  No seriously, fasting is something that is a very good habit indeed, though one that seems (for many) to have fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times.  There are lots of different ways of doing it but here is what I would suggest for someone who would like to give it a go:  A simple way to do it is to fast for 24 hours, so when you wake up in the morning don’t have breakfast, just a couple of glasses of water and the time that you normally would have spent preparing and eating your breakfast spend in prayer and Bible reading.  Then for your elevenses the same, a glass or two of water and the time you would have normally taken with your coffee and ‘Kit Kat’ spend with God in the place of prayer, same for lunch, same for dinner and the same before bed.  The next morning, have your breakfast, but just have a small bowl of cereal or slice of toast, if you go for the ‘full Irish’ you will probably be sick!  Fasting has a strange effect; you will find yourself getting grumpy as you get hungry but this will go because of the extra time spent in prayer and in that prayer you will find all sorts of things that need dealing with coming to the surface.  Talk to God about all the stuff that comes up, tell him what you are feeling, just let it all out and tell him.  People who fast often find it invaluable and actually look forward to it as a time of blessing and fellowship with God.  Again, the Lord Jesus wants our fasting to be done in secret – we don’t make a fuss about it so we plan the fasting for a quiet day when we would be at home rather than a day when we were invited to City Hall for a banquet!

The fourth great theme of Lent that the Lord teaches us about is our attitude towards money and possessions.  It’s a bit of a cliché (but one that we have no doubt witnessed), that the more money people have the more tightly they try and hold on to it.  So often people who are very wealthy are also very unhappy.  Conversely, people who are not at all wealthy are often much more happy.  I have also seen how often it is the poorest people who are the most generous in their giving of both money and resources; they have learned a lesson of which the rest of us can only be  in awe of, that true happiness is in giving away what God blesses us with, that we might in turn bless others.

As we look at these things, the giving of money, praying in secret, fasting and our attitude to money and possessions it can be overwhelming.  We can despair at our weakness:  We try to give money away but we can’t even afford to pay our bills first, ‘I want to be able to pray but I don’t think God would listen, he’s too busy and how could he love me after what I’ve done anyway; fasting, I’m a million miles away from that, it’s just for monks and people who have loads of spare time on their hands; money how can I worry about money, I don’t have any to hoard in the first place!’  I know, I know.  Look, just begin with small steps, like a child learning to walk, holding his Father’s big hands and looking into his Father’s kind and loving eyes.  Just take one step at a time…

I’ll finish with this amazing true story that I came across recently:

A man called Craig had been an alcoholic for more than a dozen years. He’d lost everything he had, including his wife and son, due to his selfishness and addiction. Things began to change after he gave his life to Christ, but he still fell regularly into his old habits. It didn’t help that he’d lost his well-paying job and was working at a local grocery shop that was well stocked with alcohol. After a few years of going back and forth between Christ and the bottle, he finally cut the ties, and, out of obedience to Christ, quit his job.

With no income and hope only in Christ, he was in desperate condition. After an interview with a sheet metal company down the street from his new church, he cried out to God. “God, if you give me this job I will give you my first pay check.” Surprisingly, he got the job.

He clearly remembers the day when he got his first pay check. Stacks of bills needed to be paid. Penniless but determined, he wrote his name on the back of the check and endorsed it over to the church and walked it to the church office without waiting for the Sunday offering. That was the moment, he says, that changed his life because now he understood what it meant to trust God.

As of today, Craig has been sober for 25 years, he’s a manager at that sheet metal company, and he serves as an elder at his local church.[1]

With God’s help, all things are possible, even for me and even for you.  Amen.

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February 27, 2011

Do not worry…

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(Photo: Not ‘Lilies of the field’, Snowdrops from Blarney will have to make do…)

Sermon for the Second Sunday Before Lent, Year A, Matthew 6:25:34

How you can tell when it’s going to be a rotten day:
You wake up face down on the pavement.
You call The Samaritans and they put you on hold.
You see loads of reporters and camera crews waiting outside your office.
Your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles.
Your twin sister forgot your birthday.
Your car horn goes off accidentally and remains stuck as you follow a Scary biker gang on the motorway.
Your boss tells you not to bother to take off your coat.
The bird singing outside your window is a Vulture.
You wake up and your braces on your teeth are locked together.
Your income tax check bounces.
You put both contact lenses in the same eye.
Your wife says, “Good morning, Bill”, and your name is George.
Source Unknown.

These days are for many a time of great worry and testing; things that we took for granted can no longer be viewed that way.  Many of us never worried about the fact that there would be enough money to pay the bills.  The mortgage was high but then so was the income to pay for it.  Food prices were amongst the highest in the world, but then so was our standard of living.  For so many people in this country the difference today from just a short couple of years ago could not be greater.  Then it seemed that the sky was the limit, now our feet our firmly on the ground, in a queue, outside the social welfare office…

Even if we ourselves are not out of work or in a desperate financial situation, we certainly know people who are; they are among our family members and friends.  We have found ourselves helping people who would be really stuck otherwise.  All of us are in this together, especially so in the family of God.

Speaking of God, where is He in all of this?  Does He just sit up in heaven and shake His head as He watches us make a complete mess of things?  No, His response is very clear, so clear in fact that at least until we grasp its truth it can be infuriating!  He says:

“Do not worry.”

It is not difficult to picture the scene:  You have just opened a ‘final notice’ letter from the bank; you simply do not have the money to meet all those who are demanding it from you.  You feel a deep anger at the former government and at the bank which is demanding your money. You feel the sheer weight and pressure of responsibility upon you to provide for your family, to feed them, to clothe then and to provide a roof over their heads and you would like to find any way possible out of this mess.  Then in the midst of all of this, the Lord Jesus says “Do not worry!”  ‘How could He possibly understand my situation?’ you say.  Actually He understands your situation more than you will ever know, and that is the core of it; He wants you to trust Him.  He wants you to hand over to Him every burden, every weight and the pressure of all your responsibility, the worry, anxiety, guilt, anger and pain.  Hand it over to Him, for He is more than able to take it from you and more than able to deal with it and He is more than able to provide for you and your family for all of your needs.  You may lose your home but you will not be homeless, you may not be tasting Pate Fois Gras anytime soon, but you and your family will have more than enough to eat.  You may not be able to drive your dream car, but you will be able to get to the places you need to.  Your clothes may not be the newest and the best anymore, but you will have all that you need.

God will provide.  Our heavenly Father feeds the birds and He provides the lilies of the field with more beautiful apparel than the finest of Kings.  God knows what we need, in fact our Heavenly Father knows what we need better than we do.

Is there a catch?  Well there is and there isn’t.  (Red Herring alert) God will provide for us, He provides enough for the whole world, the only reason so many are without is because countries like ours hoard so much and it is our greed ultimately that leads to the deaths of so many who do not have enough food in other countries.  Yes there are other factors too, whether it be tyrannical regimes in power in those countries, famines and poor distribution because of bribes and corruption and sheer apathy amongst their leaders to do anything to help.  But when we look at our problems in the context of the world in which we live rather than just on how we used to live then it does help to put some kind of sobering perspective on things.

In this life we cannot have everything that we want, there will be good times but there will be bad times too.

There’s a great magazine called Leadership Journal and this is what the editor Marshall Shelley wrote in November of last year:  My wife’s father is a farmer. He’s spent a lifetime raising wheat, corn, beef, and along the way some sheep and chickens. One morning while I followed him around the farm, we talked about the differences between living in the town and in the country.

“Most people who live in towns that I know expect each year to be better than the last,” he said. “They think it’s normal to get an annual raise and to earn more this year than you did last year. As a farmer, I have good years and bad years. It all depends on rain at the right time, dry days for harvest, and no damaging storms. Some years we have more; some years we have less.”

It was one of those indelible moments of stunning clarity. And that “law of the harvest”—some years being fat and others being lean—applies to much more than agriculture. Growing in spiritual maturity requires gratefully accepting the “seasons of more” and the “seasons of less” that God weaves into specific areas of our lives—our friendships, marriage, career, finances, ministry, and spiritual growth.[1]

So our Lord and Saviour does not want us to worry, He wants us to trust Him, but is there anything else that He wants us to do (now we get back to the ‘is there a catch?’ question.)  It is of course not really a catch, He simply wants us to stop being negative, He wants us to replace the worry, the fear, the anxiety the guilt, anger and pain with something that is good and positive.  He wants to change our outlook on life, He wants to replace the worry with faith and He wants us to not strive after the things of this world but to strive instead after the things of God; His Kingdom and His righteousness and if we do that He will take care of the rest.  We keep our eyes focussed on Jesus throughout the ups and downs of life and all (ultimately) will be well.

“But what about tomorrow – my bills are not going to magically disappear, my debtors are not going to just melt away?”  Well they might, but what is the Lord’s response to our worries about tomorrow?  Simply this:

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (v.34)

Tomorrow is the future for us, but for God who exists outside of time and for whom every one of our days is a present reality it is (or should be) of no concern to us.  As the old saying goes “Do not worry about tomorrow because God is already there.”

Of course the Lord Jesus is right; today’s concerns are enough for today.  We take our problems one at a time and present them to Him in the place of prayer.  In each thing, one at a time we place our dependence upon God and as we do so we can literally feel the weight of those things being lifted off from us.

We can all think of times in our lives where we have been in a situation where we could do nothing else than hand everything over to God.  What was it like when you did that?  Did you survive?  I can remember when I was a new and very inexperienced curate (and the rector was away) having to do several funerals in a few days – I don’t know how I did it, but I realised afterwards that God helped me.  I know that many of you have enough worries and concerns and difficulties and problems to last a lifetime (or indeed several lifetimes).  So may you draw enormous comfort from the simple truth that our reading from Matthew’s gospel reminds us of this morning; the Lord Jesus says to you and to me:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry.”

Let us pray:  Heavenly Father, you know each of us so well and you understand every aspect of our lives so completely.  You know about tomorrow and every day after that.  Lord, we choose right now to let go, to release our tight grip upon all those things which cause us to worry; you know what they are.  We let them go and we give each of them to you now.  Lord, come and fill our hearts and lives and our homes with your love, with your peace and with your presence.  Help us to keep our eyes fixed upon you always, in the knowledge that you will never let go of us and no one or nothing can ever snatch us out of your grasp.  We are with you now and we thank you that no matter what we always will be with you and you with us.  With all of our hearts we thank you … Amen.